Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reinvisioning training - "clinical" practice in the natural sciences

I have written a bit about non-academic careers in the natural sciences from the perspective of what comes after policy fellowship programs and legitimizing the non-academic career path. In that second post I briefly touched on the idea of "clinical" training models and their applicability in the natural sciences. In fields like law and medicine, after (or while) time spent learning in the classroom or the lab, students are given the opportunity for "real world" learning via clinical practice. In law school that might involve taking on real cases, and in medical school, working with patients.

In the natural sciences, we still consider ourselves to be primarily a field of academic study, not a profession, and so clinical practice is not the norm. This is not to say that people don't go on to professional positions, or that there aren't opportunities for students to have professional experiences through internships and other mechanisms. But, training people for professional careers is a largely different enterprise in a lot of ways than what is being done now in the research-oriented natural sciences. I am interested in the potential of systemic change that would help students to prepare for the kinds of jobs that exist these days by, for example, formalizing practical experience and developing relationships with professional mentors through a clinical practice equivalent. I should also specify that I am talking more about doctoral programs - my understanding is that there are more professional masters degree programs in the natural sciences at this point.

Creating clinical training programs in the natural sciences would be a major shift, inviting change in everything from faculty hiring to curricula to degree requirements. I don't know that I'll see that in my lifetime, particularly given our economic situation, but then again the lack of academic jobs could be the thing that finally ushers in a new era. In the meantime, there are some steps that can be taken are more or less challenging depending on where a given graduate program is -- I don't have a handle on what is happening at every institution, but I do interact with enough students and faculty to know that whatever it is is not happening on a large scale.

Each of these suggestions to some degree need support from everybody involved -- from students, faculty, and administrators at universities to potential employers to professional societies. I've seen successful efforts at reform led by each of these groups depending on the situation, so have left the "who would do it" part purposefully vague.

1. Formally engage practitioners in teaching and mentoring students. I think the key word here is formally. We have reached a point where many people trained in research programs have moved on to really interesting jobs outside of academia. These people are resources that could be engaged to serve on thesis committees, to teach classes, etc. That is already done to some degree, no doubt, but creating formalized opportunities for practitioners to engage with students that will become practitioners is a much needed change in academic training.

2. Develop courses and practical training opportunities geared toward knowledge and skills needed outside academia. Making scientific information useable is in many ways a fundamentally different practice than developing that same information, and at least in my experience, takes additional competency in everything from running a good meeting to learning successful horizontal management to communications to developing relationship capacities like listening and conflict resolution. While certain skills learned in current graduate training - e.g., critical thinking, research, and data analysis - may be transferable, there is a vast array that are currently not taught at all that are critical for success in non-academic careers (and maybe even increasingly in academic careers).

3. Create formal training relationships with non-academic employers. In medical schools, teaching hospitals provide the training grounds for students. Developing the equivalent for the natural sciences presents one of the bigger challenges for training in my mind, but also potentially the one with the most opportunity. If we can't even figure out where students can get practical experiences on a large scale, it shows a real challenge in the enterprise overall. So, creating relationships and training opportunities with potential employers is an important step. Government agencies, non-profits, and the for-profit sector, including consulting, are all organizations likely to hire students, so creating formalized opportunities for interaction early and often is important.

4. Work with professional societies to develop practice-oriented training and programmatic initiatives. In my experience, professional societies are fundamentally membership-driven organizations and are therefore efforts are largely based on the needs of members. That presents a challenge because non-academic members tend to leave, or at least drastically reduce their engagement with, their scientific professional societies once they move on to professional careers. This means that academics are in a sense over-represented. On a practical level, professional societies need to be reaching practitioners simply to keep up membership numbers. But, there is also a leadership opportunity to be played by more actively recruiting practitioners for leadership roles, creating publication opportunities, and relevant conference sessions. This topic is worthy of its own post, but the idea is that professional societies in particular have a role to fill in creating and nurturing efforts to create stronger ties between researchers, practitioners, and students.

This is the tip of a very large iceberg, and just a few suggestions -- I know there are a lot more out there. I'd love to hear from other folks about successful efforts that they've seen at their institutions, or changes that they'd like to see or think would be helpful.

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